There is a parent who became depressed while raising children after being confined indoors for over a year due to COVID-19. Can it be said that proper treatment has been provided to this person just by going to the hospital and prescribing antidepressants? Some pain cannot be treated only by medical methods. There is a pain that can only be understood by looking at the social structural and cultural contexts together.
Medical anthropology is a study that studies and thinks about suffering, disease, and medical system in a society through an anthropological approach. Even pain that is difficult to define or explain within the framework of science or medicine is understood and treated as pain in medical anthropology. The recently published medical anthropology book <Things to See When Sick> deals with the pain of the parents of victims of the humidifier disinfectant disaster, those who suffered from infertility and postpartum, and those who were discriminated against due to HIV/sexually transmitted infections. This book, subtitled “Anthropology Report on the Pains of Korean Society,” was written by 13 scholars from the Medical Anthropology Research Society, which was created with the participation of scholars from various fields. To hear more about medical anthropology that was not covered in the book, among the authors, Hyun-Jung Lee, Professor of Anthropology at Seoul National University, and Ji-Yeon Kang, Professor of Anthropology at Seoul National University, BK Education Research Center, met on the 17th at Kyunghyang Newspaper in Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul.
The research group was established in 2014 when there were not many medical anthropology majors in Korea. Prof. Lee Hyun-jung, Kyunghee University Professor of Oriental Medicine Kim Tae-woo, and Jeju University Sociology Professor Baek Young-kyung are the early members. At first, it started as a small seminar for study, and now 37 members are participating. Researchers, doctors, and activists from various fields, including anthropology, sociology, women's studies, and nursing, gathered here. The meeting, which is once a month, has been going on almost without exception for about eight years. Professor Lee explained the reason for studying together, saying, “The field of medical anthropology itself deals with practical topics that are deeply embedded in our daily lives.”
“Scholars do not only do research due to the nature of the field, but actively consider how to participate and intervene in the world to change it in a good way. But how can we intervene and change the world if we cannot communicate with the world and only publish academic papers or academic books? We try to communicate with the world by thinking together and sometimes publishing the things we studied together.”
The book vividly depicts the scene of social pain that is likely to be considered at least once in daily life. Care work, life-sustaining treatment (death), and discrimination based on a “damaged body” or disability are topics that anyone can be harsh on in Korean society. Anthropology researchers look deeply into these topics while living in the same field for as little as 8 to 9 months and as long as 7 to 10 years. Researcher Kang served as a volunteer at a tertiary general hospital in Seoul for two years from August 2016 to conduct a field investigation of a doctoral thesis on the subject of medicalization of death and the method of determining life-sustaining treatment. With the modernization of the medical system, the ‘medicalization of death’ was achieved, in which the place of death was moved from the home to the hospital. With the introduction of the Life-sustaining Medical Determination Act, the possibility of legal disputes has decreased, but it points to the points of concern surrounding death that cannot be identified by the law alone.
“With the introduction of the Life-sustaining treatment decision law, the conflict between family members and medical staff over how long life-sustaining treatment should be done has definitely decreased. However, the question of what kind of death is a good death and whether one can die in an appropriate place that makes a good death possible is not something that the Life-sustaining treatment decision method can solve. The life-sustaining treatment decision law is a legal standard, and it is a question that needs to be further considered whether pure ‘self-determination’ in death is really possible.”